The harder I work, the luckier I get.
If Obama ultimately wins, I expect to hear complaints that he simply got lucky that the markets crashed. Indeed, via Fallows, I see that Steve Schmidt is already saying as much.
It’s true, Obama has gotten lucky in some respects. But he’s also made his own luck. Focusing on “luck” obscures just how strong his campaign has been. The Obama team’s long-term strategy and disciplined tactics put it in a position to reap the benefits of positive developments. Similarly, the McCain camp’s lack of strategy and discipline left it vulnerable to these same developments.
It didn’t have to be this way though. The market crash would of course been hard for any Republican. But McCain is arguably the one Republican who could have potentially weathered it — assuming the campaign had been run differently.
Let’s imagine a different world. Let’s imagine that, in the spring of 2008, McCain wraps up the nomination and charges headfirst to the center. From March to October, he preaches two themes: (1) I’m a reformer who bucks the GOP; and (2) Obama’s not ready. No stupid gimmicks. No Britney ads. From Day 1, he’s pursuing a simple, disciplined strategy of distancing himself from the GOP, keeping his favorability ratings high with independents and conservative Democrats (and the press), and challenging Obama in a tough but substantive way.
These are the themes that McCain’s campaign should have been built around — the themes of his underrated convention speech (in fact, Nate Silver has speculated his bump came from that speech rather Palin’s partisan one). In this imaginary world, McCain could have distanced himself from Bush and from the GOP — much the same way that Bush did in 2000.
It’s not that hard. In a year where being Republican is toxic, don’t run as one. Run as an above-the-fray bipartisan. If he had, he would have been in a position to escape the anger directed at the White House because he would have been disassociated from it. Instead, McCain just assumed everyone thought he was independent because of a campaign many young voters don’t even remember that well.
Yes, the base would have been a problem in this world. But the Palin pick shows that they’re pretty cheap dates. Someone like Huckabee could have solidified the base, while simultaneously reinforcing the “different kind of Republican message.”
Also too (my new favorite phrase), McCain could have distanced himself in a diplomatic way. He could have distanced himself not by attacking the GOP, but by casting himself as a “fundamentalist” in the truest sense of the word. He would have been John the Baptist — the voice in the wilderness. My friends, the Washington GOP has gone astray and we need to get back to the fundamentals that Reagan taught us. Or something like that — not a repudiation, but a restoration of the lost golden age, which is a message many conservatives would find appealing.
But that’s not at all what happened.
Instead, McCain ran a polarizing, hyper-partisan campaign practically designed to make Democrats turn on him. He then completely undermined his strongest critique against Obama (not ready) by picking Palin. Also too, he devoted all his resources in the summer to stupid snarky ads rather than to grass roots infrastructure building. He’s been playing catch up ever since.
The contrast with Obama is telling. Obama has had one consistent message — (1) I’m change; and (2) he’s Bush. It’s uncanny — virtually every Obama counterpunch reinforces the same theme of tying McCain to Bush. Over and over again — even in the VP debate. Plus, Obama spent an enormous amount of time and energy this summer into organizing at the local level — even in states like North Carolina, which he was criticized for.
And today, we can see how those actions have paid off. We can see how that hard and smart work translated into “luck.” When the market crash came, people naturally blamed the party currently running the White House. And guess who had been trying to pin John McCain to that very same White House for nearly a year?
Also too, when the markets broke, several new states were put into play — states like North Carolina and Indiana. Had Obama opted to ignore those states entirely like most traditional Dems, the playing field would have been much smaller and maybe McCain wouldn’t have been forced to pull out of Michigan to play defense.
Again, you call it all luck — but it’s really not. When Michael Jordan made his various clutch shots, that wasn’t really luck. Neither was the crazy Michael Phelps finish luck. These clutch plays were the products of years and years of intense training and practice. They were lucky sure, but luck comes to the prepared. Jordan and Phelps did the work necessary to put themselves in a position to be lucky. Indeed, that’s what makes gymnastics so aesthetically compelling — it’s a lifetime of grueling effort just to put yourself in a position to get “lucky” in a few short seconds of performance.
So Schmidt can call it luck if he wants. It would certainly help him rationalize things. But the truth is that the McCain campaign has simply been outhustled, outworked, and outsmarted. They may still win, but a McCain victory at this point would simply be . . . luck.